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Pressure Is On Chris Rock to Attract Oscar Viewers - But I’m Watching To See What Quincy Jones Does

Jones’ role in at the awards could indicate how the movie Academy has worked to extinguish the flames lit by the Hollywood diversity “crisis.” Jones said he wouldn’t be a presenter if he couldn’t talk about the need for diversity...

In the wake of near panic over the lack of diversity among acting nominees for the second year in a row at the Oscars, I will be avidly watching on Sunday to see what musical great Quincy Jones does on the awards show.

After this year’s nomination announcements, a “diversity crisis” was ignited by Jada Pinkett Smith, Spike Lee and a few others. It suggested a boycott of the Oscars, shaking the staid movie Academy to its roots.

When the controversy erupted, Jones said in an interview that he would only be a presenter this year if he were given five minutes to address the diversity issue. Five minutes of the Oscars show is a lot of time - about as much time as the host’s opening bit last year.

Now Jones and other African-American performers and presenters have been recruited to be on the show this year to provide balance and to counter the anger over the all white acting nominations.

What Jones does and says matters in Hollywood, because he is a highly respected artist among people of all colors. Besides being a top record producer, musician, and TV and film producer, he is also a humanitarian. His career spans six decades, and he has won a record 79 Grammy Award nominations and 27 Grammys, including a Grammy Legend Award in 1991. He has been nominated for seven Oscars and presented the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 1994 Academy Awards.

It would be great to know what Jones plans to say on the telecast. But since he signed on as a presenter, he has declined all interview requests and won’t talk about the show.

He is not alone. This year’s Oscars’ rookie telecast producers, Reginald Hudlin and David Hill, are not talking to the press either. Nor is host Chris Rock who is hosting. There is “total radio silence,” which is unusual in advance of a global telecast that needs all the good PR it can get to boost ratings.

And ratings do matter. The Oscars are big business. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences derives most of its annual budget from the lucrative long-term deal it has with ABC. In turn, ABC and its parent, the Walt Disney Company, both count on the telecast to pad the bottom line and keep stockholders happy.

ABC’s revenue from the program last year was about $110 million (according to a NY Times article). More profit than any other awards program on American TV. Compare that to $75 million for the Grammys on CBS.

Disney also has a PR problem. Uncle Walt’s successors have made a company-wide commitment to embrace diversity, so to be associated with an overly white-bread Oscar show is embarrassing. It has to put Bob Iger and his team on sphilkes (It’s Yiddish, look it up).

The suits at ABC are reportedly very, very nervous – with good reason. Last year’s awards – where acting nominees were also all white - saw a drop of about 15% in total viewship, and 20% among African Americans .

While the Academy’s swift actions taken in an “emergency” board meeting on January 21st have quieted talk of a mass Oscar boycott, there is still an undercurrent of anger among some. It‘s unclear how (or if) that will impact the ratings. However, it is clear that haters are not likely to be watchers.

Among those calling on African-Americans and others not to watch this year in protest is activist and provocateur Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who is backing a movement called, “The White Oscars Tune Out.”

The great black hope for the organizers is Chris Rock. The Academy, ABC and advertisers are counting on Rock to be a big draw and deliver a memorable show.

That may be a lot to ask because the last time he hosted in 2005, Rock was deemed a failure by critics and Academy insiders who found him too “edgy.”

However, even if the ratings falter, it doesn’t mean the show may not be an artistic success. The Oscars has gathered an amazing group of talent and reportedly the Academy is going all out to make it a great show. It also helps that there are some nominated movies this year that the majority of people have actually seen (Star Wars will likely win most of the techie awards).

Of course, the producers have a fine line to walk. If the show is too politically correct – especially if it is at the price of not being entertaining enough – some viewers will heap scorn on it as publicity B.S. Nobody wants to be sent to diversity school. For example, many were turned off by the SAG Awards where nearly all the honors went to African Americans; those that didn’t went to Latinos and transgender talent (or those who played them).

Producers Reginald Hudlin and David Hill

I have high hopes though for producers Hudlin and Hill’s plans for this year’s show. I am guessing they will take an “out of the box” approach, as will the unpredictable Chris Rock.

Aussie David Hill also earned a reputation as a maverick and game changer, especially at Fox Sports, which he led for a quarter century into TV sport’s big leagues. He pushed innovations in camera techniques, directing games, choice of hosts, edge programming and put the score in a box on the corner of the screen throughout the game (for the first time. It’s now done by all).

Hudlin is among the most important and visible African American producers in Hollywood. He has produced the BET Awards since 2012, and he was nominated for a producing Oscar for Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained.

The Academy gave Hudlin a test drive last year as a producer of the untelevised Governors Awards, where a handful of honors go to industry greats. He did well enough obviously to graduate to the big show this year.

However, all these diversity issues concerning the Oscars are really just pointing to the big dilemma facing Hollywood. No corporate program, diversity conference, or even the Academy’s kneejerk change to diversify by dumping loyal older Caucasian Academy members as Oscar voters can change the facts.

The Hollywood movie studios' finance and distribution system won’t back many pictures about African-Americans. They won’t invest in movies that they think won’t play overseas, where more than half the tickets are sold worldwide these days. And, historically, there has been a lack of enthusiasm overseas for movies with black talent and themes.

That was the case with Chris Rock’s last movie, Top Five (2014), an edgy, sexy R-rated sexy comedy in which he played a stand-up comic in need of a career boost. It grossed an unfunny $25 million in North America, and the international box office was just over $197,000, less than the cost of catering on some action-adventure blockbusters.

In lucrative markets across Europe, Asia and Latin America, there is only interest in black talent when that performer is part of an ensemble (of all races) and the film involves lots of on screen action.

It is even worse in China, which is now the world’s biggest movie market. Not only do the Chinese limit distribution to about three dozen American movies a year, but, when those with African-American actors do get screen-time in theaters, the audiences haven’t shown much excitement.

The irony may be that a Mexican director/producer (Alejandro González Iñárritu) could win best picture for the second year in a row in an awards show heavy with African-American presenters. That could make it hard to call it #AllThatWhite.

Chris Rock has a lot on his shoulders but the big question for me is -what will Jones do? He will be an indicator if the medium is delivering the right message…and the ratings will indicate how many cared.

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